Exploratory Research vs Explanatory Research


Table of Contents

What is exploratory research?

Exploratory research is a beginning phase research that, as the name suggests, seeks to explore and investigate a problem that has not been clearly defined. There is little to no previous literature available to support or direct the flow of the research. Being an initial research approach, it does not provide any conclusive results and intends to identify and establish the best procedure, data collection process, analytical tools and general feasibility. Exploratory research formulates the need for an extensive research in the sense that it examines whether a particular topic is capable of further study in terms of its scope. The level of such exploratory research acts as existing material and guide for future studies. Moreover, the depth to which the topic gets explored with relevance to its existing scope inspires further study into the topic using the best practices established under such exploratory research.

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When to use exploratory research?

Since it is an initial phase study that discovers the depth and establishes best practices, it stands to be the most viable method to go for when the topic under consideration has not been studied much in the past. So, research topics that have little published material and reports are the “go to” for exploratory research.

The purpose of such studies should not be to generate actionable insights but to understand what is the best way that insights can be generated. Since there is no previous literature available, trying to extract conclusions in the first go can be very difficult. The researchers mindset must be to understand how the research being conducted by them can serve as an action plan for any future examination of the research topic. The greater the depth with which this initial research gets carried out, the better will be the quality of future research.

What is explanatory research?

Explanatory research, as the name suggests, is a research methodology that aims to define the “why” behind a certain phenomena. It uses reasoning and connects different ideas to define a cause and effect based relationships that highlights the factors or reasons behind the happening of a certain event. This relationship based understanding helps in identifying pain points to solving specific issues. It is a latter phase study that is usually carried out when a certain phenomena has been discovered and defined. 

Explanatory research uses secondary resources to formulate the reasoning behind the occurrence of an event. Similar to exploratory research, explanatory research does not offer conclusive results.

Conclusive research based approaches can make use of such explanatory research to formulate concentrated action plans.


When is explanatory research used?

Explanatory research finds its use to define situations , problems, events, situations or any other characteristics that has not been clearly defined in terms of the reasons why it takes place. Explanatory research can be used to define and supplement research topics by providing in- depth cause and effect analysis. This analysis takes place more efficiently when such research topics can even be examined from the perspective of other published researchers which can provide quality value addition.

Exploratory Research vs Explanatory Research

Stage of study

Exploratory research studies a new field of research and so is a part of the beginning phase whereas explanatory research is carried out when the concepts have already been explored and defined, but need to be further examined for causal analysis, thus, making it a part of the latter phase.


Exploratory research does not have any premise and so establishing the best practices is a matter of trial and error approach, that is aimed to provide structure. Explanatory research, on the other hand, is a highly structured approach that interconnects various data points to point to independent variables that lead to changes in the concept under question.

Research methodology 

Exploratory research uses questioning mechanisms to identify best practices while explanatory research proceeds with gathering response data that supports or defies a predetermined hypothesis.


Exploratory research is a discovery based study while explanatory research is a relationship based study. Depending on the nature of these respective studies the objective of the research varies accordingly.


Explanatory research is a relationship based research approach that aims to define the cause and effect relationship by identifying reasons behind why certain phenomena occur.

Exploratory research is an investigative approach to researching concepts that haven’t been clearly studied and defined. For example : a study of digital brand touchpoints to determine traffic nature and volume

 Explanatory research model is a quantitative method that is used to test a hypothesis by collecting data that supports or defies it.

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